‘A fine figure of a man’

Published in Editorial, Issue 2 (March/April 2014), Volume 22

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‘Brian Boru was a fine figure of a man and all the women of Ireland were after him . . .’ So says the ‘kindly’ Christian Brother to bemused pupils in one of the few lighter moments in Cathal Black’s otherwise bleak drama documentary Our Boys (originally banned from RTÉ when released in 1981). Given what we now know about the marital (and extra-marital) customs of the Gaelic nobility, and the fact that Brian himself was married four times, the old brother may have been closer to the truth than the standard Christian Brothers’ ‘Faith and Fatherland’ narrative, where Brian was depicted as a crucifix-wielding Christian king who expelled the ‘heathen Danes’.

Like more recent claims of ‘ethnic cleansing’, this one has not stood the test of scholarship. On the other hand, the reality was not simply one of assimilation and integration but a two-way process: in particular, Viking technology upped the military ante in a Gaelic polity already undergoing considerable technological change. But the Battle of Clontarf was more than just a Munster rolling maul pushing hapless Leinstermen and their Viking allies into the sea: recent scholarship has put it back into an international context, albeit in a more nuanced way than earlier traditional accounts.

Another feature of this period is how history and archaeology overlap very effectively as research disciplines. Unfortunately, enthusiasm for the latter was not always shared at official level, as the Wood Quay controversy demonstrated.

So welcome to this (completely redesigned) special issue on Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf, and a big ‘thank you’ to our commissioning editor, Seán Duffy.

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